The Last Panthers
The fifth episode of The Last Panthers is the most focused and accomplished to date. It’s an immensely satisfying hour, enough so that it’s worth wondering why its flashbacks weren’t sewn into the premiere.
For four episodes, we’ve had to puzzle through the exact history between diamond thief Milan (Goran Bogdan) and insurance-loss agent Naomi (Samantha Morton). We knew their paths had crossed — Milan recognized her at the end of the first episode and Naomi mentioned their history in Bosnia — but we didn’t know the details until now. If the opening-episode heist had segued right into tonight’s lengthy flashback, it may have given Milan and Naomi’s arcs the weight that they were arguably missing from episodes two to four, as Khalil (Tahar Rahim) became the more interesting character. We’re here, though, and I’m happy we finally made it. This episode features the strongest writing and acting so far. It’s a testament to two things: What Samantha Morton can do when she’s given a juicy role, and how detailed the storytelling has become on this series, which tells a story in which there are no true heroes or villains.
In a devastating prologue, we see Milan running. He knows Zlatko (Igor Bencina) is close to catching his sick brother, Adnan (Nikola Rakocevic), who is shuffling down a dark hallway. It’s all coming down at once. Milan knocks a man off a motorcycle and steals it. Naomi pulls up to see Zlatko and his partner-in-crime walking down a gloomy alley. As she steps out of the car, it feels like five major characters are about to intersect — a big deal on a show that has kept its protagonists in separate arcs for the better part of its run.
Adnan makes it to the roof. Nothing good ever happens on a roof. Zlatko catches up to him and calls his name. For some reason, I flashed to this moment in The Departed. There’s a nice background of blurry city lights as Adnan tells Zlatko what he thinks of him. “I’m fed up with you people thinking you’re so powerful,” he says. “You have no idea what power is.” No one controls Adnan. He jumps. He’s not going to give Zlatko the satisfaction of killing him, and he knows that his condition pulled Milan back into this world. He falls in slow motion as Milan speeds closer. Naomi sees Adnan’s body crash into a vent. So does Milan, and he nearly passes out. At that precise moment, Naomi and Milan see each other. Fade to black.
We’re back in Bosnia in 1995, right around the end of the Bosnian War. The vast majority of this episode takes place during the war, which killed almost 100,000 people. Milan is young, a teenager looking out for his younger brother. Naomi is at a Bosnian checkpoint, riding inside a tank with the man we’ll come to know as her ex-husband. She’s negotiating to move medical supplies through the checkpoint.
Cut to Naomi in bed with a local man. She’s talking about a memory of seeing a body with her mother. It’s a memory within a memory, highlighting how often The Last Panthers deals with the impact of the past. She remembers a man bleeding from the eyeballs — he probably wasn’t, that’s just how she remembers him. It turns out that the man she’s talking to is Milan’s father, Pev (Bojan Dimitrijević). He watches them make love from another room.
We see Naomi negotiating again at a Croatian checkpoint. She’ll pay for a broken post. The man picks up an envelope and hands it to her. It’s intelligence. “These are what you need to prevent what we can’t prevent,” he says. We cut to images of men at the Serbian checkpoint, including a younger Dragan, loading guns into a trunk to go to Marseilles.
Naomi and her future ex, Michael (Joseph Mawle) are talking. She wants to aid the efforts to stop gun trafficking. He knows they shouldn’t. Cease-fires like the one they’re currently in are extremely delicate. He’s condescending to her, but she’s driven. She arrives at a local watering hole to talk to Igor (Nenad Herakovic), one of the men behind the trafficking. “You do know that moving weapons during a cease-fire is a violation,” she says. She calls out the Panthers directly.
Igor lets Naomi have it in a great speech that starts with “Serbia is a country that understands war.” He continues, “British, they know how to start war, not to survive it. You have blood on your hands, and we have blood in our hearts.” He’s talking about the same issues that Tom (John Hurt) will try to convey to Naomi 20 years later, regarding the delicate balance of a violent world.
Cut to Naomi looking at slides during a presentation. They’re happy the cease-fire is holding. Naomi knows that danger simmers underneath. She is taken to a room where she meets Tom for the first time — turns out her future boss was MI6. He looks at the intelligence she was given by the Croatians, including photos of Igor. He wants to keep things as they are. From the very first meeting, Tom has been trying to keep the right people in power. He speaks of a strategy in which criminals are given directions, and if they follow their orders, then the authorities look the other way. It’s not unlike what happened with Whitey Bulger — a crime lord we can control is better than anarchy. They talk about the Panthers and how Igor is a friendly enemy. (“Let him behave as he wants because his savagery is a little more approachable than the others.”) Again, if we knew about this Tom-Naomi dynamic from the beginning, their scenes in earlier episodes might have had more resonance.
In a rare happy scene, Milan’s family and Naomi plays hide-and-seek in the mountains. Pev reveals that he used to take Milan’s mother there. He takes Naomi’s shirt off. She drops the hammer: “The Serbs are rearming. They’re going to attack. You need to leave.” Milan overhears the news, but Pev says they can’t go anywhere. If anyone leaves, the Serbs will know and his friends and allies will be killed. He asks Naomi to get the English to stop it. He’s a father. He can’t leave everyone else behind because that would mean he’s no longer a man. He can’t do anything. But Milan can.
We cut to a Serbian camp, where an explosion goes off. Milan knows he’s gone too far. Tom is swearing. Naomi looks crestfallen. The cease-fire is over. War has returned to Bosnia. They planted explosives in the Serbian camp, killing 15 people. Milan says they needed to strike first, but Pev knows the truth: “You’ve sentenced us to death.” Of course, this is how Milan’s father ends up dead; Naomi watches as he’s gunned down at a checkpoint. Milan and Adnan escape. Of course, this is a formative moment. Milan must protect Adnan forever — not just because they’re brothers, but because his actions led to his father’s death. He even has to protect Naomi, just like he knows his father would.
Back to the present day. Milan is shaken, crying. He wants to know if he looks like his father did. Not really. Naomi even has a photo she carries around. Milan cries. He’s lost his brother. He’s lost his father. He’s alone. And yet, he’s happy to see a photo of his father, even if it’s the only thing he has left.
- I’ve talked a lot about the music in the opening credits, but this week, I’m wondering something else: Does the imagery of a smoking gun and falling body really fit such a talky show?
- This is easily the best episode to date. The first five minutes alone are breathtaking, and then we get to watch Morton take center stage.
- The Last Panthers has a lot of threads to tie up in its last episode. Adnan is dead. Is Mokhtar next? Will Milan get vengeance on Zlatko? I have a feeling he will, and Naomi will help.